“So go and have a ball.” That’s a lyric from One Day at a Time’s infectious theme song, and it’s clear EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner Rita Moreno takes those words to heart whenever she steps into a scene as saucy grandmother Lydia on the acclaimed reboot of the 1975-84 Norman Lear sitcom. The classic series that starred Bonnie Franklin as a working-class mom in Indiana has been updated with a close-knit Cuban clan living together in L.A.: divorcée Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), her two teenage kids (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) and, of course, her brassy mother, Lydia.
In the third season premiere, Moreno, iconic for her Oscar-winning role as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story, brings her dancing and singing prowess to scenes with Gloria Estefan (who performs that theme song, by the way). Estefan guest stars as Lydia’s estranged younger sister, Mirtha, and there’s more than a little bad blood between the siblings. “There’s nothing like Lydia when she hates somebody,” notes Moreno.
The third season of the Norman Lear classic is funny, touching and comforting in its relevance for these fractious times.
Despite feeling under the weather — “I have a crappy cold, although it’s better than the flu!” she quips — the vibrant 87-year-old was happy to talk to TV Guide Magazine about Season 3, her storied history in Hollywood and her role in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake.
What’s the issue that’s kept Lydia at odds with her sister all these years?
Rita Moreno: Mirtha is convinced that Lydia stole her wedding veil, and actually Lydia did. [Laughs] Lydia denies it and there’s just all this wonderful nonsense [in the episode].
How do they compare in terms of fierceness?
They’re not sisters for nothing. They’re very vain and come from the same kind of clay. I loved having Gloria Estefan on the set. We’re good friends, she and I. I met her just a few short years ago when her husband [Emilio Estefan] produced an album for me. We immediately got along like bread and butter. We’re both very mischievous, and she loves dirty jokes, which just kills me.
What brings the sisters back together in the episode?
It’s the funeral of an aunt, but the family can’t figure out which aunt this is because there’s so many, which is just so Latino. Gloria and I also sing “Ave Maria,” of all things.
Going back to the Season 2 finale, when Lydia was at death’s door following a stroke, were you concerned the writers were killing her off?
We were all in shock. Everybody at the table read was like, “Oh, no.” It was really shocking, but I loved it.
Also, expect big kisses and an Indiana Jones-inspired mini-fridge moment.
What other kind of trouble will Lydia be stirring up?
There is a marvelous episode, but all I’ll say is this: marijuana! I had the writers laughing. When you get the writers laughing, you know you’ve got something!
You’ve won so many awards. Is it true you have them all in a closet?
Oh, that’s old news. I used to keep them in a box because I kept feeling that it was showing off, but my [late] husband [Leonard Gordon] said, “Rita, you didn’t buy these; you earned them. You’re entitled to show them off.” And I said, “Oh my God, I never thought of that.” Ever since then, they’ve been out in the open.
So you have a nice little area for them?
It’s not little since I have so damn many! Every once in a while, I pass them in the living room and I stop and look and I say, “My God, who would’ve [thought]?”
In Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story, you’re playing Valentina, a reconceived version of the corner store owner, Doc. What else can you tell us?
Steven said from the get-go I was in his mind and he knew he wanted me in the movie. That’s insane! You have to be in my shoes for just one second to experience that feeling. He also made me one of the executive producers to be the bridge to this film. And I’m just sitting there glowing like a 5-year-old child. Can you imagine?
One Day At a Time, Season 3 Premiere, Friday, Feb. 8, Netflix
Moreno Recalls Some of Her Other TV Roles:
Jane the Virgin
“I play insufferable really well,” says Moreno (below, with Jaime Camil), who has appeared four times as grating grandmother Liliana on the CW dramedy, which wraps its run this year. Seasons 1–4 available on Netflix
Moreno went dark on the 1997–2003 HBO prison drama, playing Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, a moralistic nun with a lust for bad boys. “She got that crush on Chris Meloni [who played violent inmate Chris Keller]. That was my idea!” she boasts. Seasons 1–6 available on HBO Now
Grace & Frankie
Jet lag shook Moreno’s nerves when she appeared with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in a 2016 episode as Lucy, nosy neighbor to Grace (Fonda). “I had just come from Spain,” she says. “I couldn’t remember my lines half the time. I was embarrassed!” Seasons 1–5 available on Netflix